CELEBRATE! VOLUME II : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : PERSONAL INFLUENCES : MONKEY BUSINESS

Emmons is a Times staff writer.

Joseph Edward Prentice was a teacher, lawyer, shoe salesman, horse trader, orange grower and eventually a millionaire financier who donated land for a city park--but only after officials promised to keep at least 50 simians on display there forever. And that was the origin of what is now the Santa Ana Zoo.

It isn't obvious, but Santa Ana has something in common with London, Toyko, Rio de Janeiro and Emporia, Kan.

It has a real zoo. Take the Santa Ana Freeway, turn off at First Street, and there it is--only 16 acres, but one of only three accredited zoos in Southern California.

How it got there is less a story of zoology than of Ed Prentice--teacher, lawyer, shoe salesman, horse trader, orange grower and eventually millionaire financier. His wealth, his fondness for sharp dealing, his love of practical joking--but mostly his affection for monkeys and his disaffection with Santa Ana city officials--made him one of the town's leading eccentrics.

In the 1920s, Prentice built a cage in the city's first park and put four monkeys in it, two of which soon escaped and threw the town into turmoil.

He lived in one of the city's great mansions and covered its tennis court with a 1 1/2-story cage for his pet monkeys.

He donated land for a city park, but only after city officials promised to keep at least 50 monkeys on display there forever.

He offered to donate more land and cash to expand the monkey menagerie into a large-animal zoo, but he was rebuffed. He publicly branded the City Council "knuckleheads" and wrote further public gifts out of his will.

Disappointed and disgusted, Prentice eventually moved from the city and died in Orange in 1959.

More than 20 years passed before Santa Ana, trying to gain a national image, upgraded and expanded the Prentice Park Zoo and had it accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

Does the spirit of Ed Prentice rest easily? Not according to his 43-year-old grandnephew, Joseph Robert Powell II, who still lives near the park.

The towering sign at the park's edge says "Santa Ana Zoo," not Prentice Park. "It seems like every time I go by it, I can hear him--I can feel him--going like this," Powell says, assuming a grimace of rage.

BORN DEC. 17, 1877, in tiny Sabetha, Kan., Joseph Edward (Ed) Prentice came from farmer stock. His father, Joseph Rollin Prentice, was a farmer and farm-equipment merchant who acquired Kansas wheat land whenever he could. He was building up a significant fortune, and he had the means to send Ed, his elder son, to college.

In 1896, at age 18, Ed Prentice taught school in Thayer County, Neb., for eight months. The following year he entered the University of Nebraska's college of law, and four years later he received his diploma.

During that period, he married Edith Richards, a small, frail-looking woman from Hebron, Neb., who eventually died childless at age 63. The couple moved to and from several Nebraska and Kansas towns, Prentice practicing law when he could and eventually resorting to selling shoes for a living.

It must have become plain to Prentice that riches were not waiting in a Kansas shoe store, so the couple moved to California, the well-promoted land of opportunity. After arriving in Santa Ana in 1912, he opened the Prentice Shoe Co. at 213 W. 4th St. and began looking for the path to his fortune.

With a farmer's familiarity with livestock, Prentice entered the horse and mule trade and apparently did well enough because he continued until 1924, when farm mechanization began to take hold. By then, however, he had found a more profitable use for his sharp horse-trading abilities: He began to loan money.

Prentice's mother was dividing among her six children the Kansas wheat land her late husband had acquired, but Ed Prentice told her he instead wanted money for investment in California. It appears he had it in hand by 1920, and together with what he himself had been able to save, he began a career in high-risk money lending.

"Most of the time he was loaning money to people who couldn't go to the bank and borrow it, principally second mortgages for speculators," says Jack Powell, a 75-year-old nephew of Prentice's who lives in Laguna Hills.

"So he was getting a better rate--6%, I think. You have to understand that 6% was big money in those days. The best you could get on savings was 1 1/2%."

The risks were significant. For one, "it was a lot easier to leave town and just disappear than it is today," says Powell. For another, if you held the second mortgage on a defaulted piece of property, you still couldn't get your hands on the land unless you could pay off the first mortgage. And Prentice, like his father, wanted land.

"That's why his deals were so particular," Powell says. "You see, if he was going to have to foreclose and cover first mortgages, he had to know when his money was coming back in. He was pyramiding his money and trying to make fewer but bigger loans instead of a lot of little ones.

"So he told them, 'I'll loan you this money, but a year from today, I want the money back. I won't renew the loan. I don't want to refinance you.' "

The speculators "thought they could talk him into it (refinancing) later on. They were borrowing money to pay the interest on other loans. They were hoping to hold out long enough for inflation to raise the price they could sell their land for."

So when Prentice's notes came due, the result often was foreclosure. Prentice usually wound up with the land, mostly orchards. And when the Depression set in, people other than speculators began losing land as well.

"I went through the county records--just some of them, not all of them--and I found probably 60 to 70 pieces of property he got on default in Newport, Santa Ana, Tustin, unincorporated (territory), all over the county," Joseph Powell says.

There were those who resented Prentice. "It isn't hard to make a case against a person like that," Jack Powell says. "Even in the Bible, the money lenders weren't popular. The man in many, many ways was generous, but he never received any credit for that. He did some generous things for other people besides the family, but it was rather selective."

Prentice liked people around him, so he urged his family to move to California to be near him and offered to help them get started. On the other hand, those who remained in Kansas wound up cut out of his will.

At Christmas family gatherings, he was fond of grabbing handfuls of quarters and tossing them into the air, then watching the nephews and nieces scramble.

During at least one Christmas, to see whether his relatives "knew the feel of money," he wadded $50 or $100 bills and put them in a box along with wadded newspaper. Unable to see inside, each relative pulled a wad from the box, and that was his or her Christmas present.

"I remember the look on a couple of people's faces in particular when they came up with newspaper," Jack Powell says. But those who drew newspaper got real money later--after the fun was over.

On the other hand, when his niece Coral Powell knocked on the door collecting for the Red Cross, Prentice refused to donate. "He said, 'I don't give to organizations like that,' " she recalls. "And yet, he would give his sisters $100 for a complete Easter outfit, from shoes all the way up."

It is difficult, even for relatives who knew him, to say what money actually meant to Prentice. He occasionally spent it in bursts, such as the time in the '40s when he bought 13 television sets for his family. But he reportedly spent days shopping for the best deal, then insisted that the sets and their antennas all be installed the same day.

"He always liked to bargain," Jack Powell says. He kept one or two cows for fresh milk and would buy a ton of hay at, say $12, but it bothered him that hay might be cheaper elsewhere, Powell recalls. Prentice once called a feed outlet in Artesia, then a dairy community, and discovered that hay there was perhaps $4 cheaper per ton. "So he ordered some. They said they only had the small truck working, and he snapped back, 'Well, send me the small truck then!' "

So they did. The "small" truck turned out to be a tractor-trailer rig that brought 17 tons of hay and crushed the concrete driveway as it pulled in. "It filled the barn and the packing house and it took the cows three years to eat it up," Powell says.

One of Prentice's biggest bursts of spending was the purchase of Melwood Estate at the southeast corner of Lyons and East First streets. Now it's the location of the Saddleback Inn, the Elks Lodge and part of Prentice Park, but then it was a 19-acre orange grove with a packing house and a stately three-story, 16-room Victorian mansion just outside the Santa Ana city limits.

Prentice bought it at a foreclosure auction in 1931 for $12,650, a fantastic bargain since two years earlier, before the 1929 stock market crash, it had sold for $125,000.

It appears it was at least partly a business purchase: A few months later, an application was filed by what the local newspapers called "a Los Angeles group" for a dance hall permit at that location. The dance hall deal fell through, however, and Prentice moved himself and his wife into the enormous house to live.

Joseph Powell remembers visiting the mansion as a boy.

"I would go to his home, and I had orders and directions of what I was to do and I was not to do," he recalls.

"Well," injects his mother, Coral Powell, "everybody knew you had to be on your best behavior. I don't know why."

"It's because he had the bucks, that's why," Joseph Powell says. "Why not admit it?

"It was totally different than being in the world that I was used to. The ceilings were 12 or 14 feet high, and everything was made of fine, fine wood. It was money. To me, it was like going into Hearst Castle.

"And he's sitting in his big chair, and he's got a cigar like this," Powell says, spreading his hands a foot apart. "He always had a cigar. All I can remember is they were big. He just looked like the plantation owner sitting in his throne."

In essence, he was. Prentice had become a gentleman farmer, doing much of the work with his own hands. Jack Powell says that Prentice had learned orange growing after arriving in California and had expertly revived some of the orchards speculators had allowed to deteriorate. In those days, orange growing (or orange "ranching," as the growers liked to call it) was profitable.

THE IMAGE PEOPLE HAD of Ed Prentice depended in large part on the time of day they saw him. In the morning, he was indistinguishable from hired hands. Once he was so muddy that, according to Jack Powell, a panhandler refused Prentice's whimsical offer to trade shoes.

But in the afternoon, "he came downtown dressed like a banker," Coral Powell says, adding that he was "a very attractive man." His hair had turned entirely white early in his life, and sometimes he sported a white beard, making him look "like a Kentucky colonel."

Sometimes he brought a box of camellias picked from a tree at his estate and handed them out to whomever he passed on the street. This playful streak occasionally took impish turns because he was fond of practical jokes that went to great lengths.

According to Jack Powell, the practical joking began in the mid-'30s, when the nation was enthralled by the hunt for the kidnaper of Charles Lindbergh's son. During idle conversation about the case at the county courthouse, a deputy district attorney remarked that no fugitive could fool him with a disguise.

He was immediately challenged by Prentice, who bet $10 that, within a month, he could walk into the prosecutor's office in a disguise he could remove in 10 seconds and completely fool the prosecutor.

"So Ed went to a dentist and had a set of snap-on protruding teeth made," Powell says. "He could put these teeth in his mouth, hold them in his cheek, and snap them into place with his tongue. And he had a pair of reading glasses. And one thing he did, he pretended to have a palsied hand that flipped around a bit. The hand would distract your attention."

Prentice won his bet with the maximum embarrassment to the prosecutor. He went into the attorney's office, pretended to be a relative of a man the attorney had sent to prison and reached into his pocket, seemingly for a gun. The attorney bolted, yelling for help. When the dust settled, the attorney paid up. "Here's your blankety-blank $10," he said, and stalked away.

"This disguise was so good, he sprang it on several people, including his brothers and sisters," Jack Powell says. He applied at a rooming house, for instance, and asked the woman who ran it if she would provide a more comfortable chair for an extra $10 a month, and perhaps something else for $15 more.

"These people would be going along with dollar signs in their eyes, and usually about the last of it, he'd do a fainting act in someone's arms. The 'old guy' had a heart attack, and while they were headed for help, he'd slip off the teeth and the glasses and just evaporate. Several people were pretty hostile over these jokes for years afterward."

PRENTICE'S WHIMSICAL STREAK may have been behind his decades-long interest in monkeys. He often said they were ideal pets because they were amusing--and cheap to feed.

Prentice once said he'd kept monkeys since he first arrived in Santa Ana in 1912. They finally became a public issue in 1922, when two of the four monkeys he had placed in a cage in downtown Birch Park escaped. One was easily captured, but the other, according to a press report, had "the speed of a kangaroo and the slipperiness of an eel and the staying qualities of a Rocky Mountain mule." The monkey scampered across the roofs of downtown buildings and alternately disappeared and reappeared for days.

Finally, the monkey was seen dragging a complaining cat by the tail around a yard on South Sycamore Street, and the pursuit was on in earnest. At least 100 people gave chase and hours later surrounded the monkey in a walnut grove in the 800 block of South Orange Avenue, where it was captured and returned to the Birch Park cage.

That sort of thing would have been enough to earn Prentice a place as the town character, but the story continues.

Prentice soon sold the four monkeys to a car dealer named Charles C. Tash, then sued Tash when he didn't receive the agreed-upon $100. Tash's lawyers said the monkeys had been taken "on approval" and Tash certainly did not approve and wanted to return them--and would, as soon as he could round them up.

Apparently Tash had been the only one in town who hadn't known how hard the monkeys were to keep caged. They had escaped and surrendered in rotating shifts. One pair even invaded the courthouse--one visiting the marriage license bureau, the other entering Superior Court through an open window during a trial.

Tash hired Clinton C. (Red) Imes, a roofing contractor, to capture the two monkeys still at large, and it took Imes two months. By then, however, Shell Oil Co. had obtained an attachment against Tash's property, so Shell officials said the monkeys were theirs. Imes said the monkeys were his because Tash hadn't paid him the trapping fee. Tash said the monkeys were his and sued Imes for their worth, $100, although his suit was soon abandoned.

The monkeys were auctioned by the sheriff in 1924. One was bought by a circus wintering in Anaheim, and for some reason another was bought by Shell. There is no record of what happened to the other two.

And yes, the monkey auctioned to the circus soon escaped. The series of news accounts ends with the report that an Anaheim motorcycle officer had been assigned "to get that monkey 'dead or alive.' "

In 1949, monkeys were still on Prentice's mind. At age 71 he was wealthy and had been a widower for nine years--and he still had a cage of monkeys at home. He had plans for them when he walked into the office of R. Carson Smith, manager of a title insurance company and mayor of Santa Ana.

Prentice "wanted to know if I wouldn't be interested in getting a park for the city, providing we'd name it Prentice Park," Smith later recalled.

Smith was enthusiastic and said he took Prentice right to a title company to open escrow: "I got it ready to sign, and three times he walked out on the street and wanted to think it over a little more, and the last time I got him in and signed him up.".

Prentice offered to give the city a 12-acre chunk of his Melwood Estate orange grove plus $100,000 to establish a small zoo there. But the City Council turned it down.

"The only condition of the offer that was unacceptable to the city was that his nephew, Jac Crawford (an attorney), must be consulted as to the type and variety of wild animals to be purchased . . .," wrote then-City Attorney Charles D. Swanner.

The rebuff was a blow to Prentice, who was accustomed to having his wishes respected. "He didn't take no (bleep) from nobody," Joseph Powell says. Adds Jack Powell, "Let's put it this way: He didn't have to."

But a Prentice Park meant a lot to Ed Prentice, so he swallowed his pride and came back with a counteroffer. He would donate the land without the money, but the city had to agree to keep perpetually at least 50 monkeys in "ample accommodations" in the park. Otherwise, the land would revert to him or his heirs. (The city has been careful to abide by this provision. At last count, there were 55 resident monkeys.)

The city accepted, and in special ceremonies in the City Council chambers on May 19, 1949, the council gave Prentice a gold key to the city. In the city's history, only one had been presented previously--to hometown aviation pioneer Glenn Martin.

The Santa Ana Register reported that the atmosphere was "gay and convivial" and that Prentice was in high spirits, cracking jokes that "sent council members and spectators into uproarious laughter."

"I don't feel like I've done much of anything," he told the council. "The government has put me in the 82% income tax bracket, and I'd much rather give it to the city than have 'them' take it away from me."

He added that if "everything goes all right," he might someday donate the rest of Melwood Estate to the city.

But the atmosphere soon turned chilly. According to author Mary Green, who is researching a book on the park, Prentice had plans for his park already drawn. "It was all natural-looking like San Diego's," she says. "It was not just a row of cages."

But the city did not develop the park immediately, then allotted only $20,000 a year for construction in 1950 and 1951. And a row of cages is what was built.

"The city was trying to get its priorities together," says Jack Lynch, who now is the zoo's associate curator but in the early years was the entire park staff. "The Civic Center was the big project, not Prentice Park. This upset Prentice because he felt that the city should be more appreciative."

Instead, the city wound up forbidding its park construction crews from having anything to do with Prentice, who had a habit of appearing in the park to dispense unsolicited advice.

"I knew him, but not that well," Lynch says. "He would come across the street almost daily. I was told by the city not to get involved with him." In 1953, Prentice offered $100,000 to buy more animals but again was disappointed. Courtney Chandler, then mayor, recalls that Prentice "wanted his way. He named the type of animals--elephants and giraffes and big animals like that. At the time, we certainly didn't have the money to buy feed for that kind of animals." So city officials declined the offer.

Even more irksome to Prentice was that his complaints that there was no sign at the park went unheeded, so in 1954 he put up one himself, the large concrete monument--with "Prentice Park" on its face--that still marks the spot. It cost him $750.

He held his own dedication ceremony, attended only by the concrete mason and a reporter and photographer from the sympathetic Santa Ana Independent. He told the assemblage that "while I'm around, I'd like to see the zoo developed so the park will amount to something more than a couple of acres of grass and some monkeys. . . . I'd like to see it developed now--not after I'm dead."

Months later, Prentice changed his will and announced it publicly. He had intended to leave the rest of Melwood to the city, plus $10,000 a year for 10 years, to expand the park. But since he believed that the city administrators were such "knuckleheads," he "cut 'em off at the pockets," he told the Santa Ana Independent.

Then the Santa Ana Register adopted the park as a cause. Its publisher, R.C. Hoiles, believed that public money should not be spent on things people could provide for themselves, even schooling, and he attacked Prentice Park with ferocity.

In an editorial published April 19, 1955, and headlined "Let's Get Rid of Our Monkey Park," Hoiles described the park as "a monument in the southeast section of the city to the vanity of a man seeking some means of perpetuating his name and having the taxpayers foot the bill for him." Hoiles urged the city to return the land to Prentice. "If Mr. Prentice is still so dead in love with monkeys and their display to the public, he can then convert Prentice Park into a private park and run it any way he wants to."

Prentice was stung, and he wrote to the City Council offering to take the land back. "I think we should tell Mr. Prentice that we don't entirely agree with the editor of the Register," said Councilman Milford Dahl.

That set off another of a string of Register editorials. Derision of the "monkey farm" popped up in editorials about entirely different topics.

Prentice, preparing for death, sold the remainder of Melwood. The Saddleback Inn was built on part of it, and the mansion was demolished to make way for the Elks Lodge. Prentice moved to his former home in Orange, where he died in the early morning of June 3, 1959.

"It just seemed to me that his world had collapsed," says his niece, Lucil Rasmussen. "I think he was tired of life."

Today, the zoo has a staff of 11 full-time and 10 part-time employees. Its annual budget, $635,000, has tripled since 1980. The Friends of the Santa Ana Zoo raise money for future zoo projects, one of which undoubtedly would delight Prentice--a $450,000 "Monkey Island."

But if city officials thought they were free of Prentice just because he's dead, they learned of their mistake late last year when Joseph Powell stormed into a City Council meeting and bitterly complained that the zoo was being called Santa Ana Zoo, not Prentice Park.

It is now officially called the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park, which has Powell mollified, if not happy.

"As long as I'm alive, they're going to call it Prentice Park," he says. "I feel like it's part of me. There's a lot of him in me."

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